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Lawyers seek contempt in abortion murder case

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for a Utah abortion provider charged with murder in connection with a botched procedure in Maryland are asking a judge to unseal the indictment in the case so their client can know the details and to meanwhile hold prosecutors and police in contempt for disclosing its contents.

Dr. Nicola Riley was arrested Dec. 28 on a warrant and has been held without bond in Salt Lake City, Utah, ever since. Authorities in Cecil County, Md., have said the murder charges are related to a botched August 2010 abortion in which a patient suffered serious injuries.

Riley’s colleague, Dr. Steven Brigham of Voorhees, N.J., faces multiple murder charges and is jailed in New Jersey. Both doctors are expected to be extradited to Maryland.

The allegations against Riley and Brigham mark the first time that abortion providers have been charged under a 2005 Maryland law that allows authorities to bring murder charges in the death of a viable fetus. Thirty-eight states have such laws, which are generally used in cases where defendants are accused of killing or attacking pregnant women, leading to the death of a fetus.

Riley’s attorneys argued in court papers filed Thursday that Cecil County State’s Attorney Ellis Rollins and Elkton Police Chief William Ryan should be held in contempt for disclosing details of the indictment, which remains under seal.

The charges against Riley and Brigham were first reported by the Cecil Whig of Elkton, Md., in an article that cited unnamed prosecutors and court documents as sources. Elkton police also issued a press release about the arrests that indicated the charges were related to the 2010 procedure as well as fetuses that were found in a freezer at Brigham’s now-closed Elkton clinic.

Rollins has declined to elaborate to The Associated Press on the charges or the circumstances that led to them, citing the sealed indictments. He did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday.

In the petition for contempt, Riley’s attorneys argue that details about the charges against her have appeared in more than 700 news articles, prejudicing her presumption of innocence and likely tainting the jury pool.

They also blame Rollins for allowing Riley “to languish in the Salt Lake County Jail for the past eight days” without knowing the details of the charges against her.

“It is clear that Mr. Rollins’ tactics are a ploy to gain traction on a hot-button political issue in the media and with public opinion,” the petition says.

Riley’s attorneys, Daniel Goldstein and Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, declined to elaborate on the filings.

In the motion to unseal the indictment and set bail, Riley’s attorneys argue that the evidence against her is weak and that Maryland’s viable fetus law does not apply to her.

“Because Dr. Riley is a medical professional and because she provided lawful medical care to a patient, in this case, she is exempt from prosecution,” the motion says. “The facts of this case … and the express language of the statute run counter to the state’s bald assertion that this case is unique.”

Riley’s Maryland license was suspended over her role in the August 2010 abortion. Brigham was ordered to stop practicing in Maryland without a license, and his New Jersey license was suspended, leaving him without a valid license in any state.

According to medical regulators, Brigham would begin second-trimester abortions in New Jersey and then have his patients drive themselves to Maryland the next day, where he would complete the procedures. Brigham was not authorized to perform abortions in New Jersey after the first trimester, and regulators described the arrangement as a bid to take advantage of Maryland’s more permissive abortion laws.

A search of Brigham’s Elkton clinic found a freezer with 35 fetuses inside. While freezing aborted fetuses is a widespread practice, the age of the fetuses caused concern. One was believed to have been aborted at 36 weeks. Doctors generally consider fetuses to be viable starting around 23 weeks.